Sometimes, there’s no better escapism than an all-out fantasy. And whether it’s Tolkien, Disney, Marvel, or DC, we all have our popular favourites! But being the expansive genre it is, there are plenty of gems that will inevitably slip under the radar. So here’s a handful of our favourite underrated fantasy films that we feel deserve more love!
Starting things off with something warmly recognisable within the fantasy genre, it baffles me that more people don’t talk about Stardust. Based on Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel of the same name, published in 1997, a movie adaptation of Stardust was released in 2007 with Mathew Vaughn at the helm as Director. And it was perfect! Beginning in a romantic, steampunk-esque vision of Victorian England, a young man named Tristan strays across the magical Wall to the fabled Kingdom of Stormhold in search of a rumoured fallen star, hoping to retrieve it so as to win the heart of his love, Victoria. However, the search doesn’t go as smoothly as he had initially hoped and Tristan ends up caught between a family of feuding princes, a literal witch hunt and an otherworldly being that, frankly, just wants to go home. Complete with all the magic, wit and dark, twisted undertones we’d expect from a Neil Gaiman story, Stardust is a much-watch for any fantasy fan!
Speaking of Neil Gaiman, we can’t forget the epic work of his beloved partner in crime, Terry Pratchett. Originally published in 1983, The Colour Of Magic was the first instalment of the vastly extensive Discworld series, consisting of 41 full-length novels. In 2008, Vadim Jean adapted the novel into a screenplay and went on to lead the project as Director. And it was truly wonderful! Following the cowardly wizard, Rincewind, and his perpetually poor luck, he finds himself acting as a guide to a curious tourist named Twoflower in exchange for handsome pay, having just been booted out of his University course in Wizardry. However, Twoflower’s limitless curiosity and blind enthusiasm leads them into more scrapes than the increasingly fed-up Rincewind is comfortable with. Bringing to life the first entry into a true fantasy gem, it’s a miracle that this movie has become so criminally overlooked.
Now, this one switches things up a bit. The default setting for a typical fantasy is usually either futuristic or some sort of whimsical, alternate plane. But it’s not quite so common to find a genuine fantasy period piece. A stand-out entry into the genre, The Illusionist scratches a very particular itch with its accurately portrayed historical setting and distinctively cryptic atmosphere. A romantic thriller, The Illusionist takes place in the politically turbulent setting of Vienna in the year 1900 and follows the wildly successful stage Magician, Eisenheim. However, his fruitful career takes a drastically disturbing turn when a chance run-in with his childhood sweetheart puts him at loggerheads with Leopold – the Crown Prince of Vienna himself. While some events of the plot may raise some debate as to whether or not it truly is a fantasy, it certainly has that vibe, and I think it’s more than deserving of a place on the list.
Unlike the more indie films above, Disney isn’t usually a name you’d expect to see on an ‘underrated films’ list. Given the monopoly the Big Mouse has over the pop-culture movie industry, publicity is inevitable, and their projects tend to go one way or another; they’re either an instant hit or hated for a very good reason. The Black Cauldron, however, is something of a black sheep in the Disney catalogue. In a fantastical quest to find a magical artefact to raise an army against a formidable enemy, many audience members at the time complained that The Black Cauldron, with its surprisingly violent scenes and vivid depictions of the undead and demonic witchcraft, was not family-friendly. With this off-brand backlash paired with the fact that it was released during a time when Disney had suffered an embarrassing string of box-office flops, The Black Cauldron soon fell into obscurity. However, it has since gained an underground cult following, and if you’re among those who haven’t seen it yet, it’s high time that changed!
Speaking of Disney, here’s a fantasy film released by one of its direct competitors that, likewise, didn’t get nearly the amount of love it deserved. Released by Dreamworks in 2012, Rise Of The Guardians has collected a sizable fan base over the years. And yet, in spite of this, it was a complete box office failure, with its expensive production and marketing costs preventing it from turning a profit. A devastating blow to Dreamworks, the film received very little publicity as a result. And yet, the movie itself is pretty great! Following generations of folkloric tales such as Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, and Jack Frost, this generation of well-loved immortals find themselves pitted against a classic childhood fear; a boogeyman named pitch black. Not only is it based on an intriguing premise that’s sure to evoke heaps of childhood nostalgia, but it’s also a wonderfully whimsical visual feast accompanied by a heartfelt, thought-provoking script. This movie was expensive, and it shows! It’s such a shame it never got the big bang of a release that it truly deserved.
I mean, what good is a fantasy list if it doesn’t have a fairy story on it? A fun film about discovery, it follows a teenage girl named Mary who, after being shrunk in size, discovers an entire society of fairy creatures living right under her nose. Leaning into the classic, winged flower-creature look, it sounds pretty idyllic. But, like any society, even this one has its fair share of underlying problems. A 20th Century Fox animated movie, Not only did Epic do well at the box office, but it was generally well received by audiences and critics alike, so why it’s faded away into such obscurity is a bit of a mystery. But, if you have yet to discover this one, well – now’s your chance!
So far, we’ve had classic and alternative fantasy in both live-action and CGI animation. And although we’re rounding things off with some more animation, this one is a little different. A tale based on Eastern folklore, Kubo And The Two Strings is by far the most aesthetically beautiful of all our entries. Created using stop-motion animation, it’s one of the most stunning examples of what this painstaking artform is truly capable of. Following the story of a boy named Kubo on a quest to recover a powerful heirloom, Kubo And The Two Strings is a mind-bending trip through ancient myth and evil spirits with music at its core. As fun and heartfelt as it is creepy and cryptic, the uniquely masterful stop-motion is beguiling to watch alongside its engaging story and diverting soundtrack. Why this one isn’t up there with the big hits is baffling. It truly is a forgotten masterpiece.
What are your favourite underrated fantasy films? Lets us know your picks in the comment section below!